Album Review: King Crimson – In the Court of the Crimson King (40th Anniversary Series)

There was little precedent for the music on King Crimson‘s 1969 debut album. Titled In the Court of the Crimson King — An Observation by King Crimson, the album gave a clear signal that something had changed in the world of music.

In 1969 rock and popular music were in the midst of a fertile time of experimentation: paradoxically, doing something different was the norm. Within that context, in retrospect the debut of King Crimson might not seem so terribly out of the ordinary. But in fact King Crimson’s approach — or, rather its varied approaches — sound as outré today, some forty years later — as they must have sounded to listeners of the day.

Even within the backgrounds of the players, there were little more than small hints of the direction this new group would chart. Guitarist Robert Fripp had been in an oddball trio with a drummer and bassist; the latter two were brothers. But the music on The Cheerful Insanity of Giles, Giles and Fripp bore little resemblance to King Crimson’s 1969 debut. (There are some GGF tracks that in fact sound a lot like some subsequent King Crimson pieces, but that’s another story.)

Effectively, King Crimson grew out of the unsuccessful GG&F group. Drummer Michael Giles and Fripp added bassist Greg Lake. It was multi-instrumentalist Ian McDonald who would add the greatest amount of musical texture to this new band. Playing reeds, woodwinds, vibes, keyboard and Mellotron as well as singing, McDonald helped give King Crimson a sound like no other in rock.

Several other groups were already making use of the Mellotron as a critical part of their sound. Both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones had dabbled with the instrument (a tape-based forerunner of the modern sample playback unit). The Moody Blues employed the cumbersome instrument first as an onstage substitute for an orchestra, and then soon as an instrument unto itself. But King Crimson used the Mellotron as a tool to add previously unknown depths of expression to their sweeping, melodramatic compositions.

Producing an album with a mere five songs wasn’t in and of itself a radical approach in 1969. Many “art rock” groups were offering up extended suites with pseudo-classical trappings. But few turned out such a varied yet solid set of songs as did King Crimson.

The album opens with a bizarre, almost otherworldly sound of wind forced through classical instrumentation. That quickly gives way to the menacing, proto-heavy metal riff that is the centerpiece of “21st Century Schizoid Man.” Greg Lake’s heavily processed vocal and the song’s insistent beat produce a song unlike little else in the group’s subsequent canon. This nasty piece of work features dystopian lyrics courtesy of Peter Sinfield; billed as a full group member, his role was akin to that of Procol Harum‘s Keith Reid (Sinfield did run King Crimson’s light show, though).

Keyboard does, in fact, figure quite minimally in “Schizoid Man.” Instead, the song travels a jazz path (albeit one of a very aggressive sort), twisting and turning, heading into impossibly fast sections. Held together by Giles’ nimble and highly expressive drumming, the song flies far from the rock idiom as blaring saxes and other reeds and woodwinds all fight for attention. The cacophony only heightens the doom and malaise of the song.

The transition to the next song couldn’t be more dramatic. The McDonald-Sinfield composition “I Talk to the Wind” is a romantic pop song having more in common with the Moody Blues than with the previous track. Giles’ light yet extremely textured touch on the song sets it apart from being simply a piece of pastoral pop. Greg Lake’s plaintive, dreamy vocal is virtually the opposite of his approach on “Schizoid Man.” Fripp’s guitars (acoustic and electric) are never short of interesting: his subtlety and finesse throughout the song — including his trademark restraint — are essential to the arrangement. But once again it is McDonald’s work that takes the song to the level of something really special. Overdubbed flutes (bearing little in common with, say Ian Anderson) and woodwinds are provide an alternate approach to the Moody Blues’ version of modern classical-pop marriage.

The sweeping and majestic “Epitaph” leads off with mighty Mellotron, but quickly reverts to a minimal arrangement featuring Lake’s voice and bass, Fripp’s acoustic guitar, Giles’ restrained drumming and McDonald’s Mellotron. Especially on the soaring chorus, the Mellotron’s single-note countermelody really makes the song. The song’s middle section features somber classical instrumentation atop a reverbed acoustic guitar and kick drum. Lake’s expressive vocal delivery can be seen as a template for directions he’d pursue once hooked up with Keith Emerson and Carl Palmer. A minor-key masterpiece, “Epitaph” is also the album’s most accessible track.

“Moonchild” is the longest track on In the Court of the Crimson King. It’s also the album’s weakest number, though certainly not without its merits. Sinfield’s lyrics are a bit Hobbity-airy-fairy, and the mostly-fetching melody has some clumsy parts. Giles’ inventive drumming is a highlight, but the song meanders. McDonald’s vibes offer some pleasant texture, but not enough happens in the song to justify its over twelve minute running time. (Apparently Fripp agrees; on the 2009 40th Anniversary reissue, Fripp actually insisted on trimming more than a full minute from the tune for its “official” version. The full version is available elsewhere in the extensive package for those so inclined.) At its worst, “Moonchild” elicits something extremely rare in the work of King Crimson: boredom. Long sections of the tune amount to little more than minimalist noodling.

All is forgiven when the final track gets underway. The majestic “The Court of the Crimson King” combines and sums up the best of the group’s talents: a dramatic and memorable hook melody; top-notch expressive singing from Lake (and harmonies!); carefully-placed woodwinds and reeds; and a stately pace with drumming providing copious tone color. The Mellotron’s signature descending melody line is the song’s centerpiece, but every single element is perfectly conceived, placed and executed. The song swells and explodes, and leaves an indelible mark in the mind of the listener.

Reissued in 2009 as part of King Crimson’s 40th Anniversary series, In the Court of the Crimson King is greatly expanded. Though technology of the day required significant mixdown of tracks to create a master, as luck would have it, the original source tapes were available and in good shape. As a result, Robert Fripp was able to enlist the aid of Porcupine Tree’s Steven Wilson (a huge King Crimson fan) to remix the tracks into 5.1 Surround. What’s more, Wilson was able to tinker with the mix, bringing unheard parts of the recording to the fore. The result — heard in myriad forms on the CD+DVD package — is revelatory. Heretofore unheard subtleties make their first appearance.

The CD includes five bonus tracks. The first of these is the previously-mentioned full version of “Moonchild”. The sonic clarity is remarkable, but it’s still undistinguished when put up again the other tracks on ITCOTKC.

A “duo version” of “I Talk to the Wind” is actually a completely alternate take of the song. Featuring busier acoustic guitar from Fripp and multiple overdubs of McDonald’s flutes, the song’s immense beauty is revealed yet again. In places, Fripp’s guitar sounds like a harpsichord. The instrumental take showcases the romantic qualities of the song. Oddly, the session tapes reveal Fripp introducing the song as “a poxy tune.”

An alternate mix of “I Talk to the Wind” featuring different solos and a slightly different mix is interesting, as it shows that the original lineup of King Crimson had more melodic and arrangement ideas than space in which to express them. The solo prowess of both McDonald and Fripp are highlighted here.

The backing track of “Epitaph” is essentially a karaoke version of the song. Have fun, Crimson fans. It does in fact make the point yet again — if it’s even needed — that on this album King Crimson performed with grace and subtlety. The players never seem to fight for dominance. The instrumentation on “Epitaph” is perfectly balanced; when the quiet sections come, there’s almost nothing going on, and yet it’s incredibly effective, leaving the needed space for the emotive lead vocal on the finished track.

The novelty “Wind Session” rounds out the disc. The session that produced the intro to “21st Century Schizoid Man” apparently took some time to get right. Several alternate tries are heard; after one unsatisfactory try, Fripp says, “It’s meant to be frighteningly” [sic], and the engineer dryly responds, “but it’s not.” A frustrated Ian McDonald inquires of the control booth: “Have you got any diabolical sounds you could put on it in there?”

The DVD included in the package presents content in a confusing variety of formats. The 2009 mixes are rendered in two different 5.1 formats, and two stereo formats. The “original” 2004 master is included in the stereo formats, as are the bonus tracks. The bonus tracks aren’t provided in 5.1, but then who needs a Surround version of “Wind Session,” really?

A Steven Wilson-produced “alternate album” provides some fascinating revisionist history. An instrumental mix of “21st Century Schizoid Man” does for that tune what the instrumental version of “Epitaph” did for that song: highlights the subtlety, power and effective interplay of the instruments. And it’s rendered with exceptional clarity, owing to Wilson’s ability to access those original tapes.

A studio run-through of “I Talk to the Wind” shows that the group had spent a great deal of time on the tune; recorded live in the studio, the take reveals that the song flowed naturally. In fact, during the time between Giles, Giles and Fripp and King Crimson, the song was demoed featuring Judy Dyble (later of Fairport Convention) on vocals. Clearly this “poxy tune” was one that the group felt deserved a hearing.

“Epitaph” is heard in an alternate version as well. This version lacks a bit of the subtlety present in the finished version, but it’s worthwhile nonetheless as yet another window into the creative process. Different instrumentation and a higher reliance on piano and organ are the versions highlights.

The first take of “Moonchild” features only Fripp’s electric guitar, Giles’ drums and Lake’s voice. At a mere two minutes, the unadorned track shows more promise than the final version would ultimately realize.

An alternate take (with basic tracks and no vocals) of “The Court of the Crimson King” is another glimpse at song development. This version lacks much of the final instrumentation (via overdub) that would be the centerpiece of the finished song. Giles’ inventive drumming is highlighted here, but the song’s power is only hinted at.

A brief film clip of King Crimson onstage performing “21st Century Schizoid Man” rounds out the DVD. It’s black and white and of quite dodgy quality, but it’s an essential historic artifact nonetheless. The clip reminds us that much of history is sadly lost to the haze of memory: this is, ultimately, all modern day music fans have to witness of the original King Crimson onstage. And in circumstances that would presage the often convoluted history of the band, everyone except Fripp had exited King Crimson by the time work was completed on the band’s sophomore album.

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